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August 2010, Week 4

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Thu, 26 Aug 2010 22:40:23 -0400
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Re: First Black Labor Union Marks Milestone

by Jean Damu

I salute all the tributes and accolades conferred upon
our first mostly Black union (Phillipinos were also
members, as well as women-so, so much for
"brotherhood.") However, as a former member of the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters who worked in the
Colorado Division of the Santa Fe Railroad out of
Albuquerque, New Mexico, I have to admit it gets a
little tiresome reading constant and continual incorrect
references to the Pullman Porters Union and never any
holistic political assessment to the political stances
of A. Philip Randolph and the acolyte who sat at his
right hand, Bayard Rustin.

George Pullman, the founder of the Pullman Car Co. was a
racist who sent his agents throughout the postbellum
South hiring formerly enslaved Blacks to work on his
Pullman cars. Ingeniously he made a specialty of hiring
the darkest skinned Blacks available. He wanted the
class distinctions to be as stark as possible and
thought the darkest Blacks would be the most grateful
for the job and cause the fewest labor problems. His
thinking proved accurate for a time.

Then he leased the cars along with the brainwashed Black
workers, whom he encouraged to kowtow to the white
customers, to the various railroad companies as complete
packages. But there were other Black workers throughout
the trains and these workers completed the membership of
the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Additionally, and almost completely ignored by history
is the role of Ishmael Flory, a University of
California, Berkeley graduate) who almost single
handedly and working out of Oakland organized the cooks
on the railroads. Later his union moved him to Chicago
where for the remainder of his life he led radical
causes.

I particularly mention Ishmael Flory because his skills
and politics as an organizer were at least equal to
those of Rustin, but because Flory never accepted right
wing social democracy, historians have diminished his
role and pumped up the legacy of Randolph and Rustin.

What am I talking about here?

When it came to domestic politics Randolph and Rustin
were on the mark most of the time, fighting for equal
rights, civil rights and most of all jobs-but they only
conducted these struggles within the parameters of being
perceived as good Americans. Beyond the borders and
shores of America Phillips and Randolph were virulent
defenders of colonialism and capitalism. That is why
Randolph and Rustin kept the "Brotherhood" securely
within the confines of the old AFL, the bedrock pillar
of white supremacy within the US labor movement. Someone
once asked C.L Dellums, an executive of the Brotherhood,
"Why does the old man (Randolph) keep us in the AFL. Why
don't we join (the more progressive) CIO?" "I wish I
knew," Dellums said.

Well, today the answer is quite obvious. The CIO
admitted communists to their ranks and encouraged
leftism. Despite being former radicals themselves
Randolph and Rustin had the fear of God injected
into them when they realized the government might
attempt to put them in prison or worse foreclose,
especially in Randolph's case, on their comfortable
lifestyle. Predictably they became devout right wing
social democrats willing, no eager, to throw people like
Ish Flory, William Patterson, Paul Robeson, W.E.B.DuBois
and all their other former comrades under the bus of
"good Americanism." (As long as I'm in the mood to trash
revered Black icons this morning let me add that it was
just these kinds of anti-leftist sentiments that
convinced Thurgood Marshall he should become an
informant for the FBI, that it was his duty to let the
Feds know what the Reds were up to.)

At no point did Randolph or Rustin ever denounce the war
in Viet Nam. In the mid 1970's I was at a breakfast of
labor leaders at the old Jack Tar Hotel in San
Francisco. Even though I was just a worker at the hotel
I hung around to hear what keynote speaker Rustin had to
say. The salient points of his talk that morning were a
spirited defense of Israel and a pooh- poohing of the
liberation movements in Africa and especially of the, in
his mind, quixotic notion of freedom in South Africa.
Oh, apartheid should end, but any possibility of it
happening in our lifetime, forget it, he told his
appreciative audience.

Ishmael Flory, on the other hand, and other of his
generational and political comrades (Claude Lightfoot,
Roscoe Procter) were traveling the country, speaking at
campuses telling Black students it was "their duty" to
help fund and ARM the liberation movements. No wonder
most have never heard of these long forgotten warriors.
[Shamefully the many on the Left were disrespectful as
well. When the 1973 6th Pan Africa conference was
organized in Tanzania, mostly by African Americans,
African American organizers conspired and did their
damndest to prevent Ish and his young protégé, Tony
Monteiro from attending or receiving credentials to the
conference. The woman who headed the credential
committee bragged about her role in the pages of the
Black Scholar magazine not long ago. Pitiful, just
pitiful.]

But despite the darkness surrounding the union
leadership I have to say that pound for pound my job on
the railroads and with the union was one of the best
paying jobs I ever had. The union was forced to accept
segregation where it existed. For instance if we worked
from New Mexico to Dodge City, Kansas the white workers
on the crew spent the night in the Kit Carson Hotel the
bill for which the company paid. No such luck for us
Blacks. Our luck allowed us to enjoy the luxury of the
basement of the train station, with its one electric
light bulb. The Santa Fe allowed us to take sheets and
blankets off the train for the old rusty bunks we slept
on and got upset if we forgot to return them.

But let's not forget the Randolph, Rustin and the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters did much to help
create a Black middle class in the US and for that they
are owed much credit. But I'm never one for sweeping the
dark side under the rug.

_____________________________________________

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